Matthew 15, 21-28/ Psalm 133, Romans 11, 13-32
On Friday evening, I re-watched the film Invictus. Taking its title from the poem by the same name by William Ernest Henley, the film tells the impassioned story of newly-elected President Nelson Mandela, as he guides his closest entourage, the national rugby team and, ultimately the fledgling Rainbow Nation of post-Apartheid South Africa to a threshold of healing, forging unity across racial divides.
Even if you haven’t seen the film, you can imagine the mistrust, the disdain, the open hatred amongst the various sectors, not in the least the black and white bodyguards of the president. After so many years of institutionalised segregation, nurturing “otherness” had become, oh!, so ingrained – not to mention the unspeakable wrongs committed.
And within this context, Nelson Mandela lived forgiveness and reconciliation; and he helped his compatriots to find a way there, too. How? By way of supporting their national team, the Springboks in the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Listen to that again:
By supporting the national team, the Springboks – its make-up, its colours, its emblem themselves hurtful reminders of the Afrikanerdom behind Apartheid – by rallying the nation to unite in their support for their team; but also, to help the team see their purpose as much more than winning a trophy in sport.
“And Jesus went away from that place to the area of Tyrus and Sidon; and a Canaanite woman of that region came and called after him…”
Friends, these two short verses of our Gospel reading set up OTHERNESS in capital letters.
Jesus and his friends have moved beyond the borders of Israel, into the region where Lebanon is today. Remember, Jews don’t mix with non-Jews.
And a “Canaanite woman” – oh, my goodness: two no-nos here: it wasn’t proper for a woman to approach a man who wasn’t part of her family; and Canaanite: well, Canaanites were a people marked for extermination in the book of Joshua.
The name Jesus is a derivative of Joshua. And in the beginning of our story, Yeshua, as Jesus is said in Aramaic, adopts a stance like his OT namesake.
As a young girl, and even in university days, this story always bothered me: Jesus ignores the woman! I mean, that’s so unlike the welcoming, accepting, caring, suffering Jesus we find in most of the Gospel stories.
Then the disciples approach Jesus, “Look, Jesus, this is really embarrassing – she’s making a scene; she won’t stop shouting. Just do something to send her away.”
To which Jesus replies – is it only to the disciples? Has the woman come close enough to hear what he says? Or, does Jesus, in fact, address her? The text isn’t clear on this; but what’s said is unambiguous: “I have been sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
It’s a bit like someone saying, “Nah, I’m not paid to do that; dusting is not in my contract as cleaner – all I’m paid to do is vacuum the place and empty the bin.”
And again, the woman pleads – any parent understands her: no doubt, she’s been from A to B to C, desperately looking to ease her daughter’s suffering, and in doing so, her own. She is willing to do anything – even cause a scene, ridicule herself, risk everything. Her words echo the Psalmists – “Lord, Son of David, have mercy!” and again: “Lord, help me!”
If it wasn’t clear before, this time Jesus, without a doubt, addresses the woman: “It’s not right to withhold food from the children by throwing it to the dogs.”
Jesus! Is this really you speaking? Are you calling her a dog?!
Dogs, that was the term used by Jews to delineate gentiles, heathens. In no uncertain terms, Jesus is letting the woman know: you are not part of us.
“Yes”, she replies, “you are right. BUT: even the family dogs live off the scraps that fall off the table.”
Not only do the woman’s words call to mind the Psalms, I hear echoes of Abraham arguing with God about the faithful that might be in Sodom and Gomorrah; or Moses wanting to change God’s mind; and her persistence is akin to that parable Jesus told, the one of the Widow pleading her case with a Judge, too.
“The dogs benefit from the crumbs that fall from the table.” I’m content with a crumb.
And that’s when Jesus accedes to her plea.
Some people have interpreted this story as one whereby Jesus is testing the woman’s faith. But, to be honest, I find this view unappealing because it pictures Christ a bit like a person in power enjoying his hold over another; or like a parent given to toying with a child, leaving them dangling.
Rather, I see Jesus’ humanness in this story. The fully human Jesus, the one who flies off in a rage at the temple; here he has an epiphany. “Great is your faith”, he says. It’s as though Jesus is genuinely amazed. “Let it be done for you as you wish.” And with that, his sharpness that’s so uncomfortable early in the story is gone.
This, dear friends, is a CONVERSION STORY!
Jesus changes. The encounter with this foreign woman has given him an insight, a clearer understanding of God’s call on his life and ministry: for God’s saving grace is much bigger; it’s universal!
Just like God doesn’t mind the Psalmists having it out, or being convinced by an Abraham or Moses, Jesus here is willing to change his mind; and the Christian ministry takes on a much broader scope – one that Paul (as we heard in the reading from Romans) , for starters, champions.
We can find this story in Mark’s Gospel. The way that Matthew has crafted his Gospel, and this story, for that matter, also says something about the context in which he was writing, namely to a minority group of Christians who had fled from Jerusalem to Antioch, an economic centre and a cultural melting pot, where believers were parting ways from the synagogue and its Jewish adherents to stand on their own feet.
The question was: how do you do that, when you’ve grown out of the Jewish tradition, keeping yourself to yourself. That’s all good and well in Jerusalem; but impossible to do in Antioch.
The context of our Gospel text today, was the everyday reality of the congregation in Antioch; and the author is helping them to understand the universality of Jesus’ ministry.
And so, Matthew places this story soon after the feeding of 5000 men (plus women and children), where … EVERYONE, that is to say, using the exchange of our story: ALL THE CHILDREN have been fed. Then 12 baskets of leftovers were gathered.
12 baskets for the 12 tribes of Israel.
“Surely there’s enough for me and my daughter?”
And, guess what, only three verses separate this text from yet another feeding story – this time there are 4000 men (plus women and children) and 7 baskets of leftovers are gathered. Seven is the number of wholeness in the Bible, completeness, a number encompassing all the nations.
Matthew has placed the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman between these two feeding stories.
The Canaanite woman taught Jesus that she and her daughter deserve more than crumbs. After this encounter, Jesus went on to feed those who had not yet been fed.
If Jesus could be changed, can we?
Every generation sees some people as “other” and puts them under the table. There’s been a long list throughout history; difference based on race, customs, power, money, status, religion. While, on the whole, we don’t call people by derogatory names, the attitude has not been eradicated. We just need to think of Adam Goode’s story.
We, too, designate difference, categorise “others”. They might be Muslim, or they might be desperate in their search for help – even willing to risk everything by getting on a dodgy boat.
Jesus could change, can we?
A Nelson Mandela was able to leave his prison cell to lead from a place of reconciliation, learning to understand a game and its players to prove the fact.
The Springboks learnt that nkosi sikelel iafrika is not just “their” song, but means “God, bless Africa”, something everyone yearns for.
And the people that filled the stadiums, the township shebeens and the streets, embraced with pride their new flag and identity.
To be sure, South Africa still faces many problems.
Conversion is not a once-off experience. It is, I believe, gradual because it is a matter of growth.
And so may prayer is that we may we ever grow beyond our parameters, our paradigms, trusting, as Jesus did, that God’s goodness is enough – and there is more than enough of it for everyone.
“How wonderful, where the people of God live together in unity…”